The stage was quiet at Tipitina‘s, but around one corner of the famous Uptown music hall there were the steam whistle sounds of an espresso machine and the familiar banter of a barista and regulars — evidence of everyday routines rebooted for the times.
Tipitina’s has become a new home for Hey! Cafe, after that local coffee company lost the lease to its original location nearby. Working from one of the club’s bars, it serves coffee, bagels and breakfast tacos through a walk-up takeout window. Even now, though, it’s also still serving a social role, as people talk under the sidewalk oaks or sit for a spell on neutral ground benches.
“We’ve figured out a way to serve people safely through this, and they’re figuring out ways to get a similar experience that they used to have,” said Hey! Café co-owner Tommy LeBlanc. “I think we’re all chomping at the bit to do something that we remember.”
For all the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, it has also made some things vividly clear. One is that New Orleans people will go to great lengths to maintain their coffee rituals, and often that goes beyond the cup.
“Coffee shops are gathering spots, and that’s still happening in a different way,” said Geoffrey Meeker, founder of French Truck Coffee, which has cafes across the city.
“You see it all the time. People who haven’t seen each other in months will recognize each other over their mask,” he said. “It’s cool to see the interactions and see people staying buoyant in a time when it feels like you can’t bail water fast enough.”
Coffee shops in Louisiana fall under the same coronavirus safety protocols as restaurants, with limits on indoor capacity and social distancing requirements. In practice, though, they occupy a distinct niche, and their struggles and perseverance through the pandemic tell their own tale.
Business at the cafés disappeared at first, with a corresponding boom in sales of bagged beans for home. Cafes got creative to resume limited business, and regulars found ways to connect with their favorite shops and baristas.
Gradually, through intermittent reopening phases, a semblance of what these places contribute beyond the daily grind has been returning too.
Food became the lifeline to keep Backatown Coffee Parlour stay open after business plummeted last spring. Dishes like BBQ shrimp and grits and sweet potato pies kept a little more revenue for the Basin Street shop. But Jessica and Alonso Knox originally created the café as a community gathering space, and that role is coming back as people work coffee shop outings into their new pandemic routines.
“We have customers who dress up for a visit like it’s a big event,” said Jessica Knox. “They may be doing everything virtual for work, but this is a way to be social again and they’re making the most of it.”
Location has been a dominant dynamic across the business. With more people working from home, many shops in downtown New Orleans remain slow. Others near major attractions and even schools continue to struggle.
That has played out across the region, from the West Bank to the North Shore, said Leslie Monson, chief marketing officer for PJ’s Coffee, which has more than 50 shops in the New Orleans area alone.
Throughout the crisis, keeping a connection to customers has meant constant change and figuring out what they need.
PJ’s developed a mobile app to streamline preorders and, after watching how business endured at locations with drive-thru windows, the company is working on new location designs that will continue drive-thru and walk-up service. But customers have also been asserting the value they place on time in the café.
“We see locations that serve neighborhoods really thriving. They’re often at capacity,” Monson said. “People missed their neighborhood shop, seeing each other, seeing their favorite barista.”
New shops, enduring appeal
The crisis continues to take a toll on local shops, especially small independent operations. Last fall, for instance, Café Luna on Magazine Street closed after three decades of business and changing coffee trends, and Arrow Café in the French Quarter shuttered around the same time. At the end of January, Ninth Ward shop Solo Espresso closed indefinitely after eight years.
But, in another parallel to restaurants, new coffee shops keep opening with new players stepping up.
Park Island Brew Coffee House opened last fall in a wedge-shaped building on Gentilly Boulevard by the Fair Grounds Race Course. Co-owner Chachera Brantley has worked in the coffee business around the country and decided New Orleans, where she has family ties, was the dream place to start her own shop.
“If we can make it work in these times, we’ll be ready for anything,” she said.
Park Island has stayed busy, with newly minted regulars filing into their preferred spots for a bit of work or just some time away from the new normal of home office life. They get a big dose of caffeine — one Park Island signature, the Black Mamba, adds two shots of espresso to a tall coffee — and another lens on neighborhood life.
“We see people, they’ve been on 10 Zoom meetings working from home, and they need to get out,” Brantley said. “This is a space that isn’t home, and isn’t the office. It can be that breath of fresh air they need.”
In Metairie, Yvonne Pichoff opened her own first business Evolve Coffee + Matcha last March, on West Esplanade Avenue near the Causeway, betting that an indie coffee shop could do well along the busy stretch. That was just a week before the first coronavirus shutdown orders.
But as people slowly began circulating again, many started finding their way to her door. While Pichoff prepares matcha tea and espresso, solo customers pop open laptops in the shop’s small nooks, and customers from adjacent businesses in the same strip mall drop in for takeout orders.
“Coffee is more than part of your routine, it can be that bliss in your day,” Pichoff said. “People are not going to give it up if they still have a way to get it.”
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